Dave, are you a big hockey fan?
Then you know that Capitals, playoffs, Penguins and good luck don’t usually go together, right? That borders on “positivity” run amok.
Not in Martinez’s mind — or for the Nats these days. In the face of their current funk, they have chosen this cheerful Martinez road — with analytics, boosterism and zero games of managing — to replace Dusty Baker’s wise, world-weary 3,500 games.
Don’t be too quick to think we know the answers yet. The Nats won Sunday, 3-1, and, later in the afternoon, so did the Capitals, 4-1.
“I’m not wearing any Caps [gear] now. Don’t want to jinx ’em,” Martinez said, hurrying back to watch the conclusion of the game in his office.
The Nats’ win was emblematic of multiple Martinez traits, good and perhaps bad. He communicates well with players, but the way he handles his bullpen, within one game or over long stretches with an eye to all 162 games, may need polish.
After his last start, Gio Gonzalez second-guessed Martinez over the quick hooks he had gotten in three straight games. What, no confidence in the lefty who was sixth in the Cy Young Award voting last year? Are we back to the days of No Trust in Gio with Matt Williams? No good feelings were involved.
But Martinez sought out Gonzalez the next day, and after a long, friendly talk, the pitcher praised his new manager’s “communication” skills. On Sunday, with the bullpen worn out, Gonzalez battled through seven gritty innings on 114 pitches. Afterward, manager and pitcher gushed over each other.
All well and good. But what about that bullpen? General Manager Mike Rizzo says “the bullpen has been protected” this year. He needs to look again. Either Martinez is overworking it or, more likely, injuries and a lack of depth (Rizzo’s department) have left him severely shorthanded.
After about one-sixth of the season, Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis are on pace to pitch 75, 81 and 87 games. Their career highs are 70 (in Doolittle’s second season), 72 and a scary 37 for Solis. Ryan Madson is on pace for 81 games, 13 more than he has pitched since career-saving Tommy John surgery.
Some Nats are a bit worried about Solis. Promising Aaron Barrett was once led down this early-season-burn-out to save-the-vets path.
Despite one day’s sunshine, it’s easy to find shadows on the Nats. They have a shredded lineup with little hope for reinforcements for at least a week and a bullpen with middle relievers who have been alternately awful and injured.
On top of that, Martinez contributed to a 10th-inning loss Saturday when he failed to wait until Arizona had announced its pinch hitter before waving in his next reliever. Result: The wrong pitcher (righty Austin Adams) faced the wrong (lefty) hitter. Adams walked both men he faced, forcing in the winning run.
On Sunday, Adams was sent back to Class AAA. But why was Adams, strictly a “project” with big talent but one of the wildest arms in organized baseball, put into a tie game with two men on base? Why not righty Carlos Torres, with a 4.00 ERA in 352 games in the big leagues, for such a veteran tension spot?
“Fair question. They liked that matchup better,” Rizzo said.
I just call it a mistake, probably bigger than the pinch-hitter snafu.
As one vet Nats player said, summing up the team’s injuries, sloppy play and immediate shorthanded prospects, “For now, we’re a mess.”
And it may stay that way for a while.
“When you’re scuffling, when you’re not hitting, everything [bad] is magnified. . . . Look at that lineup,” Rizzo said, dismayed, pointing at the names on the wall. “We’re asking everybody to do something that’s out of their normal role.” Rizzo ticked off names of players who were recently in the minors (Moises Sierra) or were expected to be bench players (Wilmer Difo) or were batting in star spots (Howie Kendrick in cleanup and Michael A. Taylor at No. 5).
“Oh,” Rizzo said, stopping as he realized the names of journeyman Adrian Sanchez, as well as Pedro Severino and rookie Andrew Stevenson, who had all started Saturday, were not on the card. Matt Adams, a 245-pound first baseman recently forced to endanger — and be endangered by — flying objects in left field, and rookie Rafael Bautista were not in that Sunday lineup, either.
“Well,” Rizzo amended, “that’s actually our best lineup now.”
In another part of the clubhouse, Doolittle and Kintzler focused on a phone, watching San Francisco Giants bench player Pablo Sandoval throw an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 mop-up-relief inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday. The Panda threw 88-mph sinkers on the corners, then made Dodgers swing and miss at his sharp 70 mph curves.
“Better [breaking ball] than I got,” Kintzler said.
“Look at his mechanics,” Doolittle said, replaying the clips.
“That’s solid,” Kintzler said, watching the Panda give a clinic.
“What’s he doing hitting if he pitches like this?” Doolittle asked, only half joking.
The Nats don’t need a Panda project, but Rizzo’s offseason evaluation that he had enough good bullpen arms in hand may have been too cheerful. With the 26th-ranked ERA in the majors, this bullpen needs an upgrade to complete the bridge to its back-end trio — and save their arms, too.
In the past, the Nats have investigated the Kansas City Royals’ Kelvin Herrera, who shouldn’t be too expensive in his walk year. Why not call Joe Blanton, who finally found his 2015-16 form at the end of 2017.
When the Nats get healthy, they will be fine, they say. But when will that be? And how far out of the National League East lead will they be by then, with their deficit now at six games?
Many teams give rosy disabled list timetables for the return of stars to keep team morale up and fan panic at bay. The Nats are usually one of those teams.
The Nats say Anthony Rendon is close. But that probably means he’s back in a week, not a day. Adam Eaton has been on the DL for three weeks with a bone bruise in his ankle and hasn’t even jogged yet. Daniel Murphy will need weeks.
Until then, the Nats’ manager smiles and the GM keeps a stiff upper lip.
Why didn’t you compete with Milwaukee to keep Matt Albers, current ERA 1.42 after a 1.63 last year with the Nationals? “We liked Kintzler better,” Rizzo said.
How’s that new manager look so far?
“He’s had a great start as a manager,” Rizzo said. “I like the way he’s handling this rough start. He’s calm, cool and collected. But he shows emotions, too.”
It really is early. Time will tell. For now, he loves the Caps. Got that going for him.
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